FCC proposes opening frequencies to new uses


WASHINGTON -- Hoping to speed the development of new mobile communications, from cheap and tiny wireless telephones to electronic notebooks that send and receive data over the air, the Federal Communications Commission today will propose opening up a big swath of radio frequencies for "emerging technologies."

In its proposal, which is certain to create controversy, the FCC will recommend reallocating frequencies now used by railroads, electric utilities, police and fire departments for microwave communications.

But the public safety agencies and electric utilities are alarmed by the possibility of being forced to give up their frequencies, both because of the expense involved and for safety reasons.

To ease the transition for these users, agency officials said the commission would propose a relatively novel arrangement under which new customers would have to buy out the existing users and underwrite the costs of their moving to a new frequency or to wired communication networks.

Although the details remain unclear, FCC officials said they strongly favored letting existing users keep their licenses until they reached a satisfactory agreement with the new users.

"This is the first time the commission has proposed a marketplace mechanism to make room for new services, where the new services with new technologies buy out the old ones," said Dr. Thomas Stanley, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.

The new proposal is the first step toward reassigning frequencies. After receiving comment for the next several months, the commission will try to draft a final rule.

Although the process can be bogged down by disagreements over the fine points, Alfred C. Sikes, the FCC's chairman, has said on previous occasions that he would like to begin reassigning some frequencies for new uses before the end of this year. If the FCC can achieve that, the timetable would be far faster than the 14 years it took to assign frequencies for cellular telephones.

After the FCC decides on a reassignment, it would be up to the companies proposing new services to reach buyout agreements with existing users of those frequencies.

The commission's proposal is separate from legislation pending in Congress to reallocate an equally large swath of frequencies now used by the government. The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich. The Senate is expected to take up a companion bill later this year.

The move comes as both Congress and the commission have been intent on fostering "personal communications networks," a broad family of wireless communication services that would be available to individual customers. These range from telephones small enough to be strapped on the wrist to satellite networks that can track down customers anywhere in the country, or perhaps the world, to deliver telephone calls, messages or computer data.

At the moment, more than 80 companies have been authorized to start experimental versions of such services in the United States. Many of these services amount to the next generation of cellular telephones. Using scores of small relay antennas scattered throughout a metropolitan area, the systems would, for example, make it possible for people to use low-powered telephones that are extremely cheap and small.

In addition, such companies as Motorola Inc., based in Schaumburg, Ill., and American Mobile Satellite Corp. in Washington have proposed or plan to launch satellites that would provide portable telephone service to people anywhere in the country.

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